When she was 12, Sharmila Sen emigrated to the USA from Calcutta where she had grown up. This was back in 1982, and the experience of shifting continents and cultures was something that has stayed with Sharmila for a lifetime. Even though assimilation into her new country and culture came easy, she has been acutely aware of the partitioning of her Indian self and her American self that she needed to do constantly, and to her, American meant the white culture.
This year, her much-acclaimed memoir, Not Quite Not White, won the 2019 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the ‘Adult Non-Fiction’ category. A no holds barred look at how not fitting in can sometimes make you fit right in, this deeply personal memoir had the awards committee call it one that offered a “richly literary examination of the various systems of class, race, religion, and culture that defined who she is, drawing on her familial and educational backgrounds in Hindu mythology, Indian politics, British and American literature, Bollywood, American television, and more.” The committee added that Sen in this book “challenges this yearning for whiteness and searches instead for a messy but fuller embrace of all races in America.”
Currently, the Editorial Director of Harvard University Press, Sen has received her A.B. from Harvard and her Ph.D. from Yale in English Literature. As an assistant professor at Harvard, she taught courses on literature from Africa, Asia, and The Caribbean for seven years and has lectured around the world on postcolonial literature and culture and published essays on racism and immigration.
In an interview with SheThePeople.TV, she discusses Indianness and Americanness, why in real life, we will always have our sorting hats putting us into the Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Gryffindor of race and culture in human experience and why she chooses to be the villain of her own story.
Your formative years were spent in Kolkata, and then you immigrated to the United States. How difficult was the transition for the twelve-year-old you, and what are your defining memories of this phase?
Since I was 12, the transition was deceptively smooth and easy for me. Child immigrants usually adapt to a new country very fast, and I was no different. The most defining memories of that era, the early 80s, for me all center around my school friends – having crushes on certain boys; listening to 80s bands like the Police, Duran Duran, Wham, Tears for Fears, The Pet Shop Boys; going to dance parties and staying out late; and of course high school life. I went to an amazing high school that was very progressive and lefty. I did a lot of theater and dance performances in high school. This was also the era when I was partitioning myself: my Indianness stayed at home, while my Americanness roamed the world.
The most defining memories of that era, the early 80s, for me all center around my school friends – having crushes on certain boys; listening to 80s bands like the Police, Duran Duran, Wham, Tears for Fears, The Pet Shop Boys; going to dance parties and staying out late; and of course high school life.
My Indianness, I should add, was influenced by West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. My mother’s family lived in Allahabad and my father’s in Santiniketan. I lived in 1970s Calcutta. My Americanness was also shaped by regional specificity – it was the Americanness of New England, of blue-state Massachusetts, of liberal and hippy Cambridge, of the East coast.
When you look back as a grown woman, would you say the genesis of your book was sown in this shift, and the experiences thereafter of moving to a different country and culture and the struggles of assimilating into it?
As I said earlier, assimilation was no “struggle” for me. As it happened, there were no South Asians among my group of friends in high school or even in our immediate neighborhood with whom we socialized. I grew up in a predominantly middle to upper-middle-class white social setting in Cambridge and I shed my old Indian self almost too effortlessly and stepped into a new life.
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Why did I think assimilation into American culture meant acting white, dressing white, sounding white? Why did I not act black or Latino? Why did I emulate elites and not the disadvantaged? It took me many years to think through these difficult questions. The material of my book goes back four decades, perhaps even centuries if we consider the historical phenomena that shaped who I am; but the book is written from the perspective of an adult American who is the mother of three children in the twenty-first century New England.
Not Quite Not White is an interesting exploration of how being white is the definitive way to be. What was the point at which you decided to embrace being ‘not quite white’ and yet accepting the advantages that being lighter skinned, and English speaking gave you?
I unthinkingly accepted and sought out the privileges of “looking white” or “passing” since the very first month, I arrived in the USA – August 1982. I am not proud of it. But that is the truth. Though we did not use terms like “white privilege” back then, it was all around us. Which child refuses privilege, a little extra advantage, if it is on offer?
As a woman of color in publishing, what were the barriers you had to face, and do you think these continue to box women in within the publishing world?
In many ways, I’m an absolute insider, a person with a lot of privilege in my workplace. I am the Editorial Director of Harvard University Press. I received my undergraduate degree from Harvard (most of my colleagues in the Press didn’t) have a Ph.D. from Yale, and I was a professor at Harvard for many years. I am completely at ease in my environment because I have known this university since I was 17, and am a product of it. I am also an outsider in the eyes of some people. I know my degrees annoy people who think too many South Asians are taking up spots in Ivy League universities. I can be considered “uppity.” Sometimes I am surrounded by people who look the part of Editorial Director better than I do. A tall, white, square-jawed, WASPY man in a suit, with a booming voice and a sports analogy always at the ready, might seem like a person who should be in charge of things.
I know my degrees annoy people who think too many South Asians are taking up spots in Ivy League universities. I can be considered “uppity.” Sometimes I am surrounded by people who look the part of Editorial Director better than I do.
We are in a transitional moment in publishing. Not only are PoC and WoC getting jobs in American publishing, but they are also increasingly seen in senior leadership positions. Many other professions already went through this change in the US – banking, law, medicine, and so forth. Publishing is catching up.
Grappling with race was something that you had to come to terms with, having been familiar with the trappings of caste and religion. For a young person who was shifting continents, how did this realign your perspective of how humans categorized themselves?
I was always very good at observing details and studying human behavior as a child. I’m told I was quite a good mimic as a young girl, and mimics are usually attuned to all the little details that distinguish one person from another. As I grew older, I learned from anthropologists, sociologists, and evolutionary biologists that humans always categorize themselves – and they always seek ways to transgress those categories. Sometimes we quarrel about what the “correct category” should be; we write entire dissertations on “category errors.” But, I’m afraid, we are never going to be without our categories. Even in our fantasy worlds, we have sorting hats that tell us if we’re Gryffindor or Slytherin, Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw.
The immigrant experience has been chronicled extensively in fiction. What made you look at non-fiction to write your story?
Because truth can be more nuanced and more brutal than fiction. Also, I chose to write about my own less-than-admirable decisions because I can’t sue myself. I am the villain of my own story.
Identity is something we all have, by the way. Even white men have an identity. It is not merely something owned by PoC or WoC.
As the Editorial Director at Harvard Press, what are the kind of books you are keen to bring out to the world? Are there any specific benchmarks you look for when commissioning/signing on a book?
As the Editorial Director of Harvard University Press, our acquisitions team and I always look for books that are intellectually worthy of the university whose name we bear. These books can be by world-renowned experts or a young rising star. Above all, we’re looking for books that have a real argument, are written well, and will stand the test of time. We do not publish ephemera. We publish books that will be relevant 5, 10, 15, even 50 years from now.
Why is it important for young girls to see women like you in visible positions of socio-cultural influence and what is it that you would like them to know? How do you ensure that you go beyond the dialogues around diversity and gender tokenism?
Isn’t it important for both girls and boys to see someone like me?
Unlike a previous generation which downplayed their “identity,” as I grow older, I no longer hide who I am. Identity is something we all have, by the way. Even white men have an identity. It is not merely something owned by PoC or WoC.
But what is my identity and how might it be tokenized? I am South Asian. I am also a Cantabrigian. I’m a Bollywood fangirl. I also have frighteningly deep knowledge of 80s American pop culture. I grew up reading classic Bengali novels and I am devoted to low-brow American YA fiction (the more low-brow the better). The sound of mahalaya before Durga Puja fills me with gladness, as does the smell of freshly cut pine trees during December or the aroma of a good sweet potato pie. I hate turkey and I am not fond of fish curry. I am a Bengali married to a Punjabi for 25 years and I can out-gidda anyone at Punjabi weddings. I have three children and worked throughout my pregnancies, but I don’t display photos of my children in my office (I have them on my phone!). So, yes, I am a desi, a Bengali, a sardar’s wife, a daughter of the People’s Republic of Cambridge, a Cliffie, a Yalie, a literary critic, and left-handed. I want us to be seen in 3-D, not as a cardboard cut-out version of a WoC with a narrow set of characteristics and passions.
I also have little patience for words like “diversity” and “inclusion” when they become HR-approved, euphemisms for words like “racism” and “race.” Diversity talk, all too often, circumvents the necessary discomfort of the tougher conversations, even arguments, we need to have in America about subjects such as race, class, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. It can also become a dangerous catchall word that can flatten out the differences among these subjects.
I have little patience for words like “diversity” and “inclusion” when they become HR-approved, euphemisms for words like “racism” and “race.”
You did see your father, a trained geologist, shift to a sales position when you immigrated. What kind of lessons in survival did that teach you?
Let me tell you about my mother instead. While both my parents worked hard to adjust to a new society, I think my mother had to cover the longest distance. She did spectacularly well. She went to have a meaningful career in the US, provided for me, took to all aspects of American life very easily, and made lifelong friends – white, black, Asian – at work and in our city. My mother is also one of my favorite travel companions. I had never left India until 1982, and neither had my mother. But since then we have traveled everywhere together – London, Singapore, Trinidad, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Dubai, Barbados, Toronto, Dhaka and beyond. She showed me how to adapt not only to the US, but to a whole host of cultures around the work. She is the most chill and adventurous person you can be with, in any city in the world. I don’t think anyone imagined the girl born in Allahabad had this potential within her. She was underestimated for much of her life, as many “ideal” Indian housewives are. The society in which she grew up – 1950s and 1960s India – valued her for her beauty, her soft-spokenness, and her housekeeping skills. She married at 19 and never finished college. And then she surprised everyone because she survived in a new country where she moved in at the age of 35. She continues to flourish and improve the lives of others wherever she goes.
And finally, have you finally managed to eliminate “Whiteface”?
The postcolonial scholar in me says, probably not. Decolonizing the mind is not easy. But naming things like “whiteface” for what they are is the first step in the right direction.